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David Miller: Don't Blow Your Last Chance, Fiji

David Miller Online
The Fiji Election: Don’t Blow Your Last Chance

The general election underway in Fiji at present is perhaps the most important event in the history of the South Pacific nation - and one which has so much riding on the outcome. This election is taking place against the backdrop of the George Speight led coup of May 2000, the administration of caretaker Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase, an indigenous Fijian who was installed by the military after the coup ended and who has ruled Fiji since, the candidacy of deposed PM Mahendra Chaudhry and the ever present threat of violence. As a result, the outcome of this election will not only determine the future for Fiji, in terms of its relations with other countries, but will also show whether there can be reconciliation between indigenous Fijians and Indians, and an acceptance of the ballot on the part of Fiji’s nationalists.

Violence is once again the major threat to Fiji despite reconciliation and unity being common themes expressed throughout the election campaign. The Fijian military has promised to keep a low profile throughout the election and claims to have turned all security arrangements and responsibility over to the police. There are also observers from the European Union, British Commonwealth and the United Nations in the country acting as electoral monitors, and security in Fiji is reported to be tight.

Despite such measures, Fiji’s problem does not lie with what could happen over the weekend and this week, but instead with what may happen in the future once the polling results are finalised, and a winner is declared. This is where acceptance enters the picture as the result not only determines who governs Fiji, but also the path the country takes into the future. If acceptance is forthcoming and the calls for reconciliation and unity are heeded, then the country will have a chance at securing lasting stability.

If the present government holds power then it is likely that the status quo will remain, although a greater degree of legitimacy will be conferred onto the government as at least this time Laisenia Qarase can claim democracy awarded him his position. Mr. Qarase is considered to be one of the front runners, and it will be interesting to see whether he can hold onto his premiership or whether the stigma attached to him as a military puppet will act as a barrier to his future leadership. Another determining factor will be the percentage of the vote the nationalists, such as George Speight, Timoci Silatolu and Metisula Mua gain from this ballot, and the concessions they demand from any government. It is unlikely the parties these men represent will gain power, however they may gain enough of the vote to feel they have a sufficient mandate to press their agendas and therefore become troublesome in times ahead.

The other front-runner in this election is Mahendra Chaudhry, Fiji’s first elected ethnic Indian Prime Minister and the man toppled in the 2000 coup. He has expressed confidence that this election will return him to office and believes that Fijians are ready to accept an ethnic Indian leader again. Although he was criticised for his autocratic style of rule before the Speight coup, Mr. Chaudhry has said that his government would carry on from where it had been when it was deposed, and, as it would have a mandate, it would not give in to terrorism and racially motivated forces.

The prediction is that Mr. Chaudhry will again be the dominant figure to emerge from this election simply because the indigenous Fijian vote is splintered among a number of parties. Although ethnic Indians are the dominant force in Fiji’s economy, they do not have the political representation and influence to match this. A Chaudry win could do much to address that, however even if this outcome is the one that results, its success will depend on one thing: acceptance.

Whichever party or candidate wins office can claim to have done so through the means of democracy. Although this may be welcomed in countries such as New Zealand, whether it is accepted in Fiji is another matter entirely. Both previous Indian dominated governments have been overthrown, and Mr. Qarase has warned that Fiji is not ready for an Indian Prime Minister yet. Mr. Qarase claims that it will take up to 30 years for indigenous Fijians to accept an ethnic Indian Prime Minister and to change the attitudes and perceptions of Fijians towards their national leadership.

Here lies Fiji’s biggest problem. Democracy will mean very little to those nationalists who refuse to accept an Indian dominated government and with this will come unrest and instability. The economic effects of the Speight coup are still being felt today. Many Indian businesses have been forced to close and the levels of sugar cane production, the backbone of the Fijian economy, have been slashed dramatically. Nevertheless, this has been no barrier to the desire for political power on the part of the nationalists, and nor will it be a consideration in future times. Power is sometimes said to grow out of the barrel of a gun, and this has been the case in Fiji.

If acceptance of the election result cannot be attained, then Fiji has lost perhaps its last chance for redemption in the eyes of the international community. If so it will inevitably pay the price. The New Zealand government was very harsh in its rhetoric and measures it imposed on Fiji following the Speight coup, and it will be equally so if there is a repeat of last year’s events following this election. There will be greater pressure on those who insisted on continuing to do business with Fiji in the wake of the coup last year to refrain, and there will be an economic cost to many people. However if acceptance is not forthcoming then Fiji will have lost the opportunity to create a peaceful and prosperous country. That is the biggest cost of all. The message to those carrying the guns must be, “don’t blow this chance”. On greater reflection, maybe the advice should be, “don’t blow your last chance”.

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